Officials in the dark on source of contamination

Controversial gum

Only one

part of some five consignments sent to Europe has been found with high dioxin level.

EU authorities

have totally stopped guar gum imports from India.

Eu buyers

are asking certification from well-established laboratories.

M.R. Subramani

Chennai, Aug. 26

Guar gum exports to Europe have come to a standstill after one of the shipment was found having an excess level of dioxin. While exporters are hoping that the controversy will be solved before September-end, the authorities, in Europe and India, are groping in the dark on the source of contamination.

EU directive

Actually, only one part of some five consignments sent to Europe has been found with high dioxin level. But the European Union authorities have totally stopped allowing imports of guar gum from India and it has blown up into a major food health issue there. Guar gum is derived from guar seed (cluster beans), legume crop that grows well in semi-arid regions of the Indian subcontinent. India is the leading exporter of guar gum making up nearly 80-85 per cent of the global production.

The controversial consignment was sent to the Switzerland-based food processing firm Unipektin by the Delhi-based India Glycols.

Non-compliance

According to Unipektin, the contamination is not isolated and higher dioxin and pentacholorphenol (PCP) levels have been detected in earlier consignments now. All these have been found with differing concentrations and none complied with the standards revised by the European Union from November 2006.

Though only India Glycol’s shipment has been found problematic, Unipektin says there is no notification saying it could receive guar gum from suppliers other than India Glycol.

Controversy

According to Mr Jeewan Gandhi, President, Indian Guar Gum Manufacturers Association, guar gum is exported for edible and non-edible purposes. “The controversy with Europe is over guar gum exported for edible purpose. It makes up 75-100 containers of the 600 containers sent to Europe every month,” he says.

It also means that nearly 100 containers are now held up in Europe. “Our European buyers are asking certification from well-established laboratories that the shipments do not contain excess dioxin and PCP,” said Mr Gandhi.

Thickening agent

Guar gum is used as a thickening agent and additives in foods products such as instant soups, sauces, processed meat products, baked goods, milk and cheese products, yoghurt and ice-creams. Besides Unipektin, companies such as Coco Cola, Danone, Nestle and Unilever have been affected by this controversy as they have been forced to recall some of their products such as Fanta, Maggie etc.

Guar gum is also used in industrial applications such as paper and textile sectors, ore flotation, explosives manufacture and fracturing of oil and gas formations.

The European Union has set a maximum level for presence of dioxin and PCP and the level differs from product to product.

According to an India Glycol official, there are differing views on this. “Some say it is 0.75 picogrammes (pg) per gram and others say it is 1 pg,” the official said.

In fact, in some of the products, up to 6pg/g of dioxin is allowed.

The India Glycol official said: “There is some confusion over the rules. We are trying to resolve it.”

Health hazard

However, one important aspect of the problem is the source of dioxin. Dioxin, which can cause a series of health problems such as cancer and nervous system disorders, can be present in soil, air and water. This is generated due to incineration, combustion and geological processes and once it gets into the human system it will be hard to excrete it.

Unipektin says it suspects that the dioxin and PCP contamination sources of India Glycol consignment could be water or any of the process or cleaning aids.

The India Glycol official said firewood burnt in processing could be one source.

Probable source

“Since diesel has turned costly, people have begun using firewood. It can lead to higher dioxin,” he said but Unipektin has ruled out either firewood or any of the packaging material as the contamination source.

The India Glycol official said farmers switch guar and cotton alternatively. “People use pesticide and insecticide for cotton. It can be one of the contamination sources,” he said.

Some exporters based in Jodhpur, Rajasthan say pesticide and insecticide is seldom used but a few others say it could have happened in the crop grown in the irrigated tracts such as Ganganagar in Rajasthan or Haryana.

Cooperation sought

Unipektin has now sought the cooperation of Indian officials in tracing the origin of the dioxin contamination. A team of European Union officials will be visiting India soon with regard to the issue, said Mr Gandhi.

“We need to have testing facilities with the latest technology to help avoid such problems,” he said.

Analysts tracking guar seed and guar gum are of the firm view that the issue will cause harm only in the short-term.

Related Stories:
Defect suspected in Indian guar gum shipments

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 27, 2007)
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